Leading The Charge In Real Estate
It’s widely acknowledged these days that a business with decision-making that reflects the community it’s serving, performs better across a number of metrics. Still, many of our sectors and industries have a way to go. Some though, are leading the charge.
We talk to Barfoot & Thompson Director, Kiri Barfoot about diversity and inclusion in the real estate business, the changing face of leadership and living in a kibbutz.
I want to start off by going on a little bit of a tangent, what’s it like to live in a kibbutz?
That’s totally different from the property market! That was a very long time ago. In my twenties, I finished university and of course back then after university, you wanted to go travelling and do your big OE.
I really wanted to go to Egypt to see the Pyramids, but I didn’t want to go for too long and I wanted to end up in London, but I didn’t want to go to London in the middle of winter. So I went to the library, got a book out called, ‘How to work your way around the world?’ And it said, ‘work on a kibbutz,’ and I’d never heard of a kibbutz. I thought, ‘Oh, I can just get paid to hang out with people my own age and have fun.’
I’d never been to Israel and it’s right next to Egypt, so I decided to do it. I got lucky with the Kibbutz, Ein Gedi, right by the Dead Sea, an oasis in the middle of the desert. My first job was taking photos of tourists at Masada. I would drive the film to the processing lab around the corner and someone would process the photos and print them out. By the time the tourist came down from the cable car, we’d sell the photo to them for 10 shekels.
My second job was driving tourists in the train down to the Dead Sea because it was about 500 metres in 35 degrees, so not everybody wanted to walk. I would drive the little train and people would take photos of each other, sitting in the Dead Sea reading the newspaper.
It was a great opportunity because you’re hanging out with people your own age from different countries. I met Americans, South Africans as well as Danish and Swedish people too. I worked hard, but finished about two o’clock in the afternoon and then just relaxed by the pool and had quite a good social life.
When you experienced the depth of these cultures, did that change your perspective on things, coming back to New Zealand?
Yes and no. I grew up on the North Shore and I went to Birkdale (now Birkenhead)College, and that was quite a wide socioeconomic area. I had friends from all different nationalities. Whereas other people I know had grown up in predominantly Pakeha schools and weren’t used to different cultures.
We live in such a great country and we’re really, really lucky. You never saw security guards outside banks 20, 30 years ago in New Zealand. You can walk down the street most of the time and not feel like you’re going to be mugged, or someone’s going to shoot you. We’re probably not as safe as we used to be, but we’re still a relatively safe country. And with COVID of course, we’ve shown that being an island is sometimes not a bad thing because we have even more protection from a pandemic.
Auckland is the melting pot. It’s one of the most diverse cities in the world. Travelling certainly opens your eyes up, but also makes you recognise that your country is a great place to live. It’s great to travel to other countries, but it’s also nice to come home.
Why is there a battle at a corporate level to have structures that are representative of the communities that they’re dealing with?
It’s a good question, isn’t it? Why is it still a thing? When I grew up, women were told, ‘girls can do everything’, yet I’m reading in the newspaper today that women are still paid 10% less than men. At the top of organisations, there are not many people of colour. Why is that? I think that it’s probably been accepted for too long that no one has really challenged it.
People have subconsciously just chosen people to be leaders that look like themselves or sound like themselves, or they know because they went to school with them. That was probably good if they went to a school like mine, but if they went to a school that predominantly had similar types of people , then they’re going to choose a leader with similar traits.
I think it’s something we all need to focus on and to challenge. Even being a woman, it’s been challenging, but I got there in the end. I had a conversation with one of our staff members and he said, ‘I see you’ve just appointed someone to this office similar to me, so I can be a manager too.’ That was not the first manager from that background we’ve appointed, but this person just hadn’t seen it before.
People just can’t be what they can’t see and if they see a whole lot of people at the top that don’t look like them, it means most people are less inclined to put their hand up.
One of the main objections to having better representation at board and governance level is that it’s got to be based on merit. Is that a cop-out? Do we need to break down what merit is and then look at the other metrics?
Of course you want to choose the best person for the job and sometimes that best person might look the same as everyone else, but they may not. Maybe we should be asking, have we actually got all the applicants we can possibly get in front of us? Are we trying hard enough? Have we reached out to every single corner of our network and actually asked, if there is a suitable applicant for this job? Or have we just talked to our friends or gotten a recommendation from only one person?
I think as leaders, we need to try a bit harder to get a more diverse range of applicants in the first place. Yes, I totally agree, we should appoint someone on merit, but I think as leaders, we need to try harder to make sure we’ve got all the suitable applicants at the table at the outset.
I’m not saying this is the right thing to do or not, but maybe have a company policy that says that the top four applicants have to be diverse, whatever that looks like, according to the goal of the organisation , otherwise we go back to the market and keep looking. Of course, it’s going to be role dependent. For some roles there just aren’t a lot of applicants, no matter how hard you try to motivate people to apply.
What is your take on quotas? Do you think we need to start putting them in?
I don’t know about quotas. I’d like to see the shortlist have a diverse range of people. I’m not sure that quotas are the right way to go, but I do think something needs to change. This is something we can all do at an organisational level, today.
It’s been proven time and time again, the more diverse you are at the top, the more successful you are as a company. Not everyone likes change. It’s like climate change; there are going to be some companies that will really do their bit, but the majority of people will say, ‘Well, that’s going to cost us too much money. I’m going to retire in two years, so I’m not too worried.’ That’s the challenge.
What’s your advice to individuals who perhaps can’t see a mirror of themselves at the level that they want to be at, but they still aspire to that?
If you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s what I’ve seen after working with successful people over many years. The ones who put their hand up are the ones who eventually get what they want. Often they’ve got to hear a lot of no’s before they get a yes.
Even if you think you’re not ready, no one’s really ever ready. No one’s been a CEO before they first take up the role, so how are they ready to be a CEO? It’s not something you can learn at school, or at university or through an online course. You’ve just got to do it and a lot of it is learning on the job.
Obviously, there’s technical skills. That’s something you can learn at university, but the people skills side and the ability to take people on the journey with you is probably the more important part of being a leader. It’s surprising that people put themselves down and don’t have the necessary confidence. They can do better than they think they can. What’s the harm in applying? If you’re 60% there, I think you should apply. How can your manager know you’re interested in taking up a leadership role if you don’t talk to anyone about it?
If you aspire to be a leader but feel you’re not ready yet , find a mentor, a coach, or someone who’s in that position already and just reach out to them. Most leaders are happy to give their time. It might be a quick 15 minutes or a very short coffee, but most people have been where you’ve been before and they’re happy to give advice because they know how hard it was for them. The onus lies on you to reach out because people won’t know of your desire to be a leader if you don’t communicate it. You’ve got to put your hand up!
Within our company, we can target people that we identify as future leaders, but it’s not possible to have a sense of everyone’s leadership aspirations. We don’t know what everyone’s doing all the time and we’d certainly like more people to put their hand up. We’re always looking for future leaders, whether it’s in or outside our company.
It never really struck me that the real estate industry has had a huge problem with diversity. Can you talk about some of the problems you’ve seen?
I think the sales and the property management teams in Auckland reflect the customers. Once you get up to management level, it’s a little bit different, but we’re working on that. If you look at the leaders at the top of real estate, they’re predominantly men, but that’s because they’ve probably been in the position quite a long time. I’m sure over the next five to 10 years, we’ll see quite a few changes, just with the nature of the turnover and the senior leaders retiring.
We’re no better or worse at the top than most companies or most other industries. I can’t speak for other companies, but at Barfoot & Thompson, our sales team is 50/50 male/female. You really get paid what you’re worth. In that way, it’s a great career path for anyone who feels they can work hard. There’s no glass ceiling in real estate.
Why are you so proactive with the work you’re doing with diversity? Why is it important for you?
It just makes the world a better place. There’s successful people from all walks of life and from all backgrounds, why should you limit that to just 20% of the population? People can come to New Zealand with nothing and within 10 years they own a house and they can afford to put their children through university or send them to some good schools. That can make a real difference in people’s lives.
The more successful the community is, the better it is for everybody in that community. The more people that are in meaningful jobs and are getting paid what they’re worth, then the better it is for everybody. It’s good for mental health because generally people are happier if they’re working. And it’s better for the families because there’s less domestic violence, crime and addiction problems. It’s about having a purpose, whether that’s working or not. We want to get more diversity in our company, because we can see how it changes people’s lives for the better.
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